How Vision and Real Strategy Can Help Schools Shape the Future

Winter 2023

By Tim Fish

This article appeared as "A New Path to Progress" in the Winter 2023 issue of Independent School.

It's safe to say that there’s never been a more important time for schools to be visionary and strategic. The past three years have been unlike anything we have experienced in the past 100 years. The adaptive challenges we face are complex, and the pace of change unfolding around us is accelerating. Independent school students and their families have never needed our communities and teachers more than they do today. And to make progress on their behalf, schools need to have the courage and capability to shape their own future. They need a compelling vision and a real strategy. But an increasing number of school leaders feel the traditional strategic planning process they’ve been using will not serve them in the future—five-year, five-pillar plans with 20-plus objectives are holding them back from true progress. 

School teams engaged in traditional strategic planning have the best intentions. Everyone is deeply committed to the school and wants to do everything possible to ensure a bright future for their community. Yet the results rarely live up to the expectations. Why is that? I think it’s because the process we use has become a comfort food casserole filled with some vision, a pinch of actual strategy, and too much planning. 

It’s human nature to want to plan. Planning, says Roger L. Martin, co-author of Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, focuses attention on the things we can control because those things are doable and comfortable. Planning is stable and predictable. It’s tidy and creates harmony. It results in organized lists, crisp budgets, and measurable goals. Our typical planning process limits the unknowns. It often strips out risk, differentiation, conflict, and trade-offs, and in doing so, removes unique vision and real strategy. 

A new process should be grounded in three things:

  • the development of a public shared vision that is aligned with the mission
  • strategy grounded in a clear understanding of challenges and a commitment to become more unique 
  • an agile innovation process that can respond to changing conditions   

Vision and strategy are not the same thing—and they are both essential. In the simplest terms, vision defines where we are going, and strategy defines the choices we will make to get there. The vision should be public, aspirational, and beautifully designed; strategy needs to be honest, focused, and may have elements that are less public. The vision and strategy for a school should be holistic—based in a systems-thinking approach that appreciates how every aspect of the organization is interconnected. 

What Exactly Is Vision?

If a school’s mission defines its purpose, a vision sets the direction for the future. It is the aspirational public expression of where the school is going and why it’s important and an essential tool for differentiation that helps define the school’s value for families, alumni, and staff. A vision is the catalyst for progress. It inspires the community to look beyond current reality to imagine what can be. It communicates how the school will realize its unique value in the future. 

The vision does not have to be long. In fact, it’s best when it can fit on a single page or a few slides. It should be very public—expressed in videos on the website, in glossy brochures, and at every back-to-school night. It should be inspirational and clear. The vision should also be flexible enough to allow everyone to see themselves in it. Peter M. Senge, MIT professor and author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, believes that the best visions are deeply held by each member of the community, influenced by the unique perspective of the individual, and enhanced by the diversity of the entire community.  The most effective visions are shared. They go beyond a memorized tagline. Senge believes that you can measure progress on a vision by observing how individuals bring it to life. It is seen through action.  

Developing a shared vision can take several months and will likely require intently listening to the community. Shared visions are co-created. They describe the world members of the community are trying to create together. When schools bring diverse groups together to imagine the future with chart paper and sticky notes, they are doing vision work. According to Senge, a shared vision helps people commit to evolving in the long term even though change in the short term may seem difficult.  

When thinking about vision, ask: Where do we want to go as a school? What future do we imagine? What mountain are we trying to climb? How will the vision make the school even more unique and valuable? Why is it important to move? How bold does our vision need to be? What aspects of the school need to remain and what needs to go?

What Is Strategy?

Real strategy work begins with an inward examination of the current reality in a school. Richard Rumelt, professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, argues that strategy must be rooted in a diagnosis—a deep and truthful understanding about what is really going on in a school. Crafting the diagnosis helps focus the strategy on the work schools need to do more than the stuff they want to do. Insights derived from data and experience inform a diagnosis, which needs to articulate the truth about what’s holding you back from realizing your vision.  

The strategic plans that many schools commonly draft are often unconsciously grounded in a desire to limit disruption. The unstated goal is to make everyone happy—to ensure that the school and the plan will be all things to all people. And that’s where they fall apart. Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School and one of the most respected thinkers on strategy and competitive advantage, argues that while making improvements to aspects present in every school (hiring great teachers, increasing the annual fund, innovation in learning) is important, it’s not strategy. According to Porter, the greatest strategy error is to compete with your competitors on the same dimensions. 

Strategy is ultimately about competing to be unique. It embodies the choices we will make to separate ourselves from others. Strategy is as much about what we will stop doing as it is about what we will start. Real strategy involves making a bet on the future when we don’t have all the information we need. It is inherently risky and messy. If you don’t feel a bit of a knot in your gut when you finish the process, you likely haven’t set real strategy. If the process feels tidy and predictable, you may be baking a comfort food casserole filled with a lot of planning and not enough strategy.  

Trade-offs are another key to strategy. Porter cites IKEA as an example of a company willing to make strategic trade-offs. The furniture retailer has a clear understanding of the value it wants to create for its target customer, and there are some things it will not change in order to get there. For example, customers will always be building their own IKEA furniture. That idea is a key part of their strategy. They embrace the reality that their strategy will be a turnoff to some people. It’s OK, because the biggest IKEA fans, who are also the company’s target customers, are thrilled with the approach. Strategy helps focus energy on the truly important decisions that will delight target families, deliver on mission, and make a school more unique. 

When thinking about strategy, ask: Do we have the data to inform our diagnosis? To advance our vision, what do we have to start doing and what do we have to stop doing? How can we become even more unique? What is holding us back? What resources are we going to need? What are the outside forces likely to disrupt our strategy?

Bringing Strategy to Life

Downstream of strategy lies the process of designing and implementing innovation. Without real strategy, innovation is random, disjointed, and misunderstood. Innovation and tactics are the action side of vision and strategy. They bring the vision and strategy to life. 

Innovation design is most effective when diverse members of the community are given agency and empowered to design, prototype, and refine innovations aligned with the vision and strategy. Teams don’t have to be limited to staff; including students can serve as a powerful catalyst for exciting new ideas. It’s essential to give teams time and resources to support their work and to provide a forum for sharing learning. The goal is to create momentum where the community is aligned and engaged in building for tomorrow.  

Because the strategy is so deeply connected to a school’s diagnosis, elements might shift every year and innovation and tactics will be in motion all the time. This reimagined process does not operate on a fixed three- or five-year timeline. It is far more agile; it allows school leaders to respond to conditions on the ground and adjust when needed. I recommend an annual retreat with board members, the head of school, and leadership team members to assess progress and decide what is needed for the next 12 months. In most schools, adjustments to the mission will be quite rare, and the vision likely will be slow to change. But schools are never done with this work—it is the fundamental driver of progress.  

Are You Ready?

The NAIS Strategy Lab team has been working in partnership with more than 150 schools over the past four years. Through team-based workshops and sprints, which allow us to climb into the strategic messiness at schools, we’ve found that there is no one-size-fits-all process that will work for every school. Everyone is in a different place with respect to their vision for the future, their understanding of differentiation, their ability to truly understand their current context, and their capacity to design and implement strategy. 

For some schools, partnering with a consultant can help them organize a process, build a team, engage with the community, and shape their direction for the future, while other schools can empower leaders within their own community to shape a vision and strategy on their own. Here are some guiding questions that might help your team decide on the best path forward.

  • Does your mission statement ground your community in your purpose, or do you need to begin with an honest assessment and possible revision of your mission and values?
  • Why are you engaging in a vision and strategy process? What’s your imperative? What outcome do you seek? 
  • What’s been your school’s recent history with strategic planning? Do you think the process from the past will serve you well, or is it time for a new approach?
  • What’s your timeline? Do you need to pull a small team together to make quick progress on strategy, or do you have time to shape a shared vision with the larger community?
  • Do you have a clear, data-informed understanding of the challenges your school faces? Do you fully understand the forces at play in your community? Are you collecting and analyzing the right data?  
  • Do you have a differentiated, shared public vision for the future of your school? Is that vision clear to all constituents? Can the vision serve as a foundation for your strategy? 
  • Are there people in your community with the skills and knowledge to facilitate a strategic design process, or will partnering with an outside group best serve your school?
  • What’s your scale? Is the school at a moment of bold reimagination, or do you simply need to tweak and enhance a few key areas? 
  • Does your team (board, leadership, others) have the trust and confidence necessary to engage in a strategic process that will result in hard choices, trade-offs, and risk? Or is your team looking for a safe plan?

At NAIS, we have a broad view of the industry and the opportunity to work with almost 2,000 schools. We’re always searching for examples of schools that have been able to recover from declining enrollment and deficit budgets. In every case, the school community is aligned with a compelling vision, and the board, head, leadership team, and staff are willing to make necessary investments and trade-offs to advance their vision. These schools have momentum and buzz. They attract teachers and families because they stand for something. They have a point of view. They know who they are and are OK with the reality that they are not for everyone. At the end of the day, creating that momentum should be our goal, and leveraging the power of vision, real strategy, and innovation can help us get there. 


Get Out of NowTown

NAIS Strategy Lab sessions and workshops often use a mountain journey metaphor as a way to understand strategic progress in schools: The journey begins in NowTown, a school’s current reality, and moves through how to get beyond NowTown while holding on to mission and differentiated purpose. 

Want to get moving? Learn more about the different ways Strategy Lab helps schools as well as the opportunities to engage in the work. Go to strategylab.nais.org to sign up for upcoming events, to access tools and resources—including case studies and the Innovation Design Workbook—and to connect with members of the Strategy Lab team. 

Author
Tim Fish

Tim Fish is the chief innovation officer at NAIS.